Eliya McDonald was in ninth grade when everything fell apart.
First her mom was diagnosed with frontal lobe epilepsy, a condition that caused frequent seizures and forced her to quit working. Before long, the family was homeless and car-less, living in a roach-infested hotel with most of their possessions gone. Then Eliya was diagnosed with Graves disease, a thyroid condition that caused symptoms like insomnia, mood swings, weight and hair loss.
Until that point, she had been an excellent student, first at a charter school for the performing arts, and later – with a Florida tax credit scholarship – at Academy Prep, a highly regarded private middle school in Tampa. But now in a top-tier private high school, and rocked by everything she and her family had to endure, she began to fall behind.
Her GPA fell to 2.33. Worse, the once-boisterous girl with the loud, infectious laugh and Cheshire Cat smile crawled into a shell.
“That year was really rough,” Eliya said. “I was in and out of school, and when I was in school I didn’t really fit in. I wasn’t able to keep up.”
“It was really heartbreaking,” said Eliya’s mom, Ebony Smith. “That was not my daughter. It was totally out of character. Her nerves were horrible.”
Thankfully, the scholarship helped Eliya and her family rise above. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)
Ebony raised Eliya and two older sisters in West Tampa, a neighborhood she described as “drowning in poverty.” She was determined to lift them out, using school choice as the ladder. She enrolled them in charter schools, where Eliya discovered a talent for singing and acting, then secured Step Up scholarships so they could attend private schools.
“My girls are not going to live the way that I have had to live, and I made that pledge to them,” Ebony said. “Education is the only thing that’s going to save them.”
Things finally stabilized for Eliya when she and her mom began to find the right medications, and a non-profit charity donated money to get the family into an apartment that is still home today.
Eliya transferred to Tampa Bay Christian Academy to get a fresh start and a better fit. But she was still in her shell. She didn’t know if she was in the right school, yet.
“In 10th grade, you hardly knew she was there,” said Natasha Sherwood, head of TBCA. “She was scared to move or talk. Her eyes didn’t look up. You’d see the top of her head more than you could see her face.”
Eliya isn’t sure how, but an English and drama teacher named Selma Grantham found out about her performance background and pushed her to sing in a chapel service.
Slowly the shell began to crack, as Eliya started asking questions in class. But the big breakthroughs were performances as Baloo in “The Jungle Book” and Rafiki in “The Lion King.”
As Eliya stretched her vocal chords, she rediscovered her self-esteem.
She became a leader. Her grades bounced back. She earned two scholarships, one for $10,000, to Southeastern University in Lakeland.
In May, Eliya graduated with a 3.33 GPA and several honors – National Society of High School Scholars, National English Honor Society, recognition by the American Student Government Association, and most importantly the TBCA Omega Award.
“It’s basically an award for your character,” a beaming Ebony said. “The way the teachers and students voted unanimously, saying she deserves that, meant a lot to me.”
When the award was announced, Ebony was so excited she wanted to jump up on her chair but instead stood and cheered.
“Eliya has worked so hard,” Ebony said. “She really just thrived at this school.”
Having a choice made all the difference.
“It was so important for me to find a school that fit me,” Eliya said. “I got to find myself, and it’s so important to find out where you truly fit, because you’ll never find your original you if you don’t go to a school that fits you.”
Eliya and her sisters did just that.
Imani, 23, graduated Bard College in New York and is now a financial services specialist at Regions Bank. Esme, 21, is studying accounting at Hillsborough Community college.
Today, at Southeastern, Eliya is studying elementary education.
“I want to open my own school,” she said. “I definitely want to take Step Up kids. I think every kid deserves a quality education no matter if they’re rich or if they’re struggling.”
About Tampa Bay Christian Academy
Founded in 1957, Tampa Bay Christian Academy is accredited by the Christian Schools of Florida and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Of the academy’s 200 students in K-12th grade, 100 receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. The upper school focuses on a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, with honors classes and a dual enrollment program through the University of South Florida and Hillsborough Community College. The school administers the NWEA’s Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) as its standardized test three times a year. Tuition ranges from $6,800 to $7,400.